Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic


Illustrations by Rob Wilson.

Originally in print in August Issue 07, Utopia.

In 1963, 429 Broome Street became an art-world address. James Rosenquist and Ron Westerfield each rented a floor of the narrow corner building, with a cast-iron storefront below and marble facing above, for $125 each, part of the first wave of artists replacing textile wholesalers and machine shops in Soho. The upstairs floors, with windows practically to the floor on two sides, were perfect for painters. The ground floor, shoebox-shaped and also with big windows, would need some work to make it mysterious.

In 1968 Ruffin Cooper Jr., a twenty-four-year-old former talent agent, took an $8,000 loan from his Texas banker father and advertised in the Village Voice, “Wanted: carpenters to work for free on experimental nightclub.” John Storyk, a twenty-two-year-old recent Princeton grad working days at an architecture firm and practicing with his band at night, answered the ad. Cooper and his partner, set designer Bobjack Callejo, showed him a model of a long, windowless narrow room with little round tables and described the “sensorium” they had in mind.

Storyk realized they were in over their heads – “You can’t just walk in off the street, where are all the projectors, they hadn’t really thought this through.” But he said, “I said, I’ll bang nails for free if you let me design this.”

Today, inserting an avant-garde multimedia environment into a former mercantile building seems willfully retrograde, especially when artist neighbors of Rosenquist and company turned rebellion against residential norms and experiments with commercial materials and imagery into big paydays and real estate fantasy. But in 1968, Soho was still a frontier, and fast-and-dirty design could still pay off in delight and acclaim, if not rent. In any case, these unlikely collaborators managed something that many artists never will: a place out of time, a space out of place. Cerebrum, as it was called, was more sensual than brainy, but managed to get club-goers out of their heads – and also out of their clothes.

“Try to imagine the location,” Storyk says today. “Soho was a word you didn’t know. Cabbies, you had to tell them how to get down there. Funky, dirty, artists’ lofts, every now and then an odd event – if we were smart, we would have bought the building.”

Cerebrum, which opened at 429 Broome Street in November 1968, showed the work of his Ivy League design idols, mixed with experimental theater: “At Princeton from 1964 to 1968, if you weren’t in love with Bauhaus and Le Corbusier, they threw you out.” Club-goers knocked and gave their names to a disembodied voice behind a sliding door. Once admitted to a black vestibule, they were asked to change into white gowns “over as much or as little of your regular clothing as you wish,” as the New York Times put it. Once identically arrayed, they entered the main chamber, also all white, with an elevated, carpet-covered platform divided into sixteen floating “pods” for groups of four. Projectors and audio equipment were embedded in the walls at either end, while additional atmospheric effects might rise from the floor or drop from the ceiling. No food, drink or drugs were sold: You called to reserve a three-hour slot in advance, and admission was on a sliding scale, $1 on Sunday nights, $7 on Saturdays.

Hosts and hostesses, also arrayed in white drapes, guided guests through a series of scripts. Storyk’s then-wife was one of them, as was Franne Lee, early costume designer for Saturday Night Live. “There was a New England 15 minutes,” says Storyk, with snowy winter scenes projected on the walls, fake snow falling from the ceiling, and hot cider on trays. “The Beatles moan, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ the walls blossom with pastoral projects and the scent of strawberries drips into the air,” wrote the Times. There was an “Africa” interlude, with landscapes and instruments. There were balloons, bubbles, glass building blocks. Things to taste, touch, scent, see.

“Most of the [other] entertainment was, You buy a ticket and you sit in a chair, or you go someplace and dance,” says Storyk. “How many other places would you go and participate in the action? You were the show.”

You were the show, yes, but without the performativity required of interactive theater or even dance clubs. You didn’t have to spend hours getting ready. You didn’t have to know how to move. You didn’t have to hold the spotlight. The guides were just that, guides, leading you as a group through a series of trancelike states. Even if Cerebrum didn’t sell substances, there was no rule against arriving in an altered state. It was like being inside a brain, rather than having to use all your faculties.

The rare note of disapproval was sounded by New York Magazine, usually the first to declare something the next big thing. In a review which praises the dancefloor exhibitionism of Paraphernalia – “Why dance for one partner when everyone in the room is looking at me and I can move for all of them? – Dorothy Kalins is dismissive of Cerebrum as a “kinesthetic kindergarten” with “rest periods,” too programmed, too arty, to be truly sexy, or transgressive, or thrilling.

Cerebrum managed to make the pages of LIFE and Vogue as well as the Times and New York, but by August 1969, it was over. If nightlife correspondents were confused about what Cerebrum was, so was the mob, which typically took a cut of clubs’ liquor or cigarette money in exchange for protection. Cerebrum had neither and so, after Cooper hied off to Woodstock and joined the Hog Farm, the club folded. Storyk was already on to the next thing – designing a club on Eighth Street for Jimi Hendrix, scrapped at the last minute in favor of what became Electric Lady Studios – which launched his career as an acoustic designer. Cerebrum’s immersive atmospherics lived on at The Loft, opened by influential party host David Mancuso in 1970, which embedded the latest technology in the walls and nudged people toward the center of the room. At a time when single-sex clubs were banned, and partner dancing was still the norm, the architecture of disco offered liberation by bringing the whole dance floor together, regardless of gender, income and sexuality. Cerebrum, with its unisex robes, was like the palate cleanser before the feast.

Just as the earliest loft dwellers were outlaws, bending zoning rules as cops looked the other way, so were the first wave of discos. As Richard Dyer wrote, of both the music and its spaces, in his 1979 “In Defense of Disco,” “It is a riot of consumerism, dazzling in its technology (echo chambers, double and more tracking, electric instruments), overwhelming in its scale (banks of violins, massed choirs, the limitless range of percussion instruments), lavishly gaudy in the mirrors and tat of discotheques, the glitter of denim, the flash of its costumes.”

In the age of the Sphere, the Las Vegas immersive arena which seats 18,600, Cerebrum might seem quaint. Why party with 63 other people when you could party with 18,599? Why party in a shoebox when you could party in a literal headspace? Cerebrum had all the technical know-how of a two-carousel art history slideshow (but sexy), rather than a 160,000-square-foot LED screen and haptic seats? But reading back my own questions, the answer seems obvious. What could be more engaging, more surprising, more fun, than paying $1 for some old-fashioned ingenuity? Calling up, then rolling up to a blank door in the middle of ostensible nowhere and being surprised. The long afterlife of this ten-month happening (Storyk was not at all surprised to get my call, fifty-five years later) feels like proof that sometimes utopia is a moment, a temporary summit of creative and sensual energies. The mob wasn’t being a media critic but maybe their leverage – and the more sprawling attractions of Woodstock – were the ideal end of Cerebrum’s three-hour tour.

Originally published in August Journal